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Abusing a position of trust – Trustees of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v BXB

Last week the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in our case of Trustees of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v BXB (our client), in which it found unanimously in our client’s favour that a religious organisation could be legally liable for the actions of an individual that they have placed in a position of authority.

Our client had already won her case in the High Court last year.  Regrettably, rather than apologising to our client and allowing her to try and move on with her life, the Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision.

The Court of Appeal strongly dismissed their appeal.  As Bean LJ confirmed in his judgement:

“This appeal is the latest episode in the attempts of religious organisations to escape vicarious liability in claims for damages for sexual offences committed by those whom they have placed in positions of responsibility and moral authority … even an adult may be susceptible to relationships which involve a risk of abuse, particularly in the context of those spiritual beliefs and doctrines which promote a culture of unquestioned obedience to religious leaders”. [Bean LJ at 105.]

Background

Our client and her husband had attended Jehovah’s Witness meetings at the Kingdom Hall in Barry, South Wales since 1984.  The perpetrator had a special position in the congregation as a ministerial servant when our client and her husband became friendly with him and his wife.  He later became an elder, a senior member of the congregation.  Elders and ministerial servants hold positions of authority within the organisation.

The perpetrator behaved inappropriately towards our client, but she felt unable to complain because of his role and position within the religious organisation.  Our client was also instructed by the perpetrator’s father, who was also an elder, to provide the perpetrator with support because he was unwell.

Sadly, in 1990, the perpetrator raped our client in his house after the two couples had been door-to-door evangelising (known as pioneering).

Appeal

The Court of Appeal unanimously found in our client’s favour and dismissed the appeal.

The Court of Appeal found that an organisation, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that confers power and authority on individuals over others, creates a risk that those individuals will abuse that power and authority, and therefore, can be held legally responsible for abuse committed by those individuals.

The judgment goes on to say that “sexual abuse is almost always a form of abuse of power”.  Any organisation that confers on its leaders power over others creates the risk that they will abuse it in that way.

The Court of Appeal confirmed that the same legal test applies in cases in which adults have been sexually abused as it does in cases involving children.  The issue is the connection between the abuse and the relationship between the perpetrator and the organisation and not the particular characteristics of the individual that has been abused.

Comment

This is a very welcome judgment as it confirms that religious organisations can be held legally liable for abuse committed by individuals that they have placed in a position of authority, irrespective of whether the abuse is perpetrated against an adult or child.

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